The Joy of Indian Movies

From Bollywood to You

Warning: this article is full of generalizations which may or may not accurately reflect the people of India or their film industry. In addition, when I wrote this originally, Bollywood films were largely unknown to mainstream American filmgoers, but with the success of Slumdog Millionaire, pretty much everybody knows about them now.


When I tell people that I like Indian movies, the most common response is, "you mean, like, from India?" Had these people any concept of the huge film industry of Bombay, they would feel foolish for assuming I might be talking about Native Americans.

India has had a thriving film industry since the first feature-length silent film was produced in 1913. The people of India have always been deeply affected by cinematic images. Early films which portrayed religious stories often caused people to genuflect to the life-like images of gods on the screen. They would avert their eyes and fall to the floor in fervent prayer when suddenly confronted with figures which had only previously been paintings on the walls of shrines. Although the Indian film industry has a history of great cinematic works which some claim rivals that of the French, it was the big-budget musical extravaganza craze of the 1960s that helped Indian movies find their niche. According to one website, India is the largest producer of films in the world.

"Bollywood," as it is known (the name is a hybrid of "Bombay" and a California town you probably have never heard of), has millions of fanatical fans around the world, innumerable superstars and sex symbols, and is busy cranking out loads of movies at any given time. Virtually all of these films are escapist musicals, which incorporate a variety of elements to make them appeal to a broad audience. My intense distaste for most English-language musicals is perhaps what makes Indian musicals so appealing... it's almost as if they're a parody of American musicals because the productions are so incredibly outrageous. The intense competition for the box office rupee has led to increasingly elaborate musical sequences, usually involving bizarre locations (on top of a moving train, in an airplane that seems to be crashing, in the middle of Times Square in New York City) and hundreds of singers and dancers, all pantomiming to songs which were obviously sung by professional vocalists in a distant recording studio. The music is fantastic, usually an ultra-catchy hybrid of traditional Indian instruments and hip-hop or tribal rhythms, sometimes incorporating parodies of popular songs like "The Macarena," or sometimes featuring rapping in Hindi. In addition, since I can't understand the language, I try to imagine that they are singing something intelligent while dancing around in the crashing airplane.

it's almost as if they're a parody of American musicals because the productions are so incredibly outrageous.

There are some considerations for the casual non-Indian viewer. First, it's rare to see English subtitles in a Bollywood film. The movies are so broad that it's not too hard to figure out what's going on, but often times it's kind of confusing. Another consideration for people with short attention spans is that the films are very long. Every movie we've seen clocks in at over three hours. There are two reasons for this: 1. they are pure escapism, so the longer you can get away from your life, the better; and 2. they try to include everything they can to make the films appeal to everyone, often involving elaborate subplots and dozens of main characters.

Elements of Indian Films

The Bollywood movies we've seen usually include all of the following:


Dil Se

The engine that drives the plot of every Indian musical is love. The plot is usually some variation of boy meets girl, boy pursues girl but girl doesn't like boy, boy is lured away by an evil temptress, first girl realizes her love for boy and pursues boy, after a great struggle sometimes involving danger and/or dancing, boy falls for girl, they live happily ever after. Themes of intrigue, revenge and jealousy dominate much of the action, sometimes leading to scenes of melodrama (see below). Don't think for a minute that because there's love in all Indian films that you're going to see any sex because apparently it is strictly forbidden. Often, the main characters will only engage in a kiss on the cheek (could you imagine that in an American film?) but there's no sweaty writhing bodies. You never see a bare breast, but you will see lots of women in very skimpy outfits dancing seductively, which is infinitely more enticing.


Where would romantic films be without the music montage? Apparently, the montage has become the most common device to show what characters are thinking about in Indian films. Usually one or more of the scenes involve one character fantasizing about how their life would be if they were married to their romantic interest. These scenes are usually stunningly beautiful with images of running through flowered fields, standing atop high Himalayan pastures or dancing around on a breathtaking beach. Songs are also used to illustrate moral dilemmas, such as a choice between vice and virtue, with loads of symbolism.


There's usually some slapstick humor and bumbling or wacky characters who pop up from time to time for a good laugh, sometimes after a scene of heavy melodrama. Another frequent theme is to have the two main characters bicker in a humorous way when they first meet, before they eventually realize their love for one another. Sometimes the songs are comical as well, usually when one character is trying to woo another one and performing a series of outlandish acts to get the attention of the aloof woman or man.


Among the legacies of British colonial rule in India are the sport of cricket and a smattering of English words which have worked their way into Indian conversation. During the movies, sometimes you can catch a few words you will understand like "please," "hello" and "excuse me," or even a brief exchange entirely in English. In addition, the credits are always in English for some reason. Even the titles of the film, although composed of Hindi words, are spelled out phonetically with English characters as well as appearing in Hindi.


There are plenty of soap opera-esque scenes with dramatic music and unlikely plot twists (people who were thought to be dead reveal that they have been alive under a new identity, for instance). Music wells as the camera zooms in on people's faces during tense moments. Arguments and tearful reconciliations are plentiful, and always resovled by the end of the film. Men are portrayed as quite emotional in Indian films, often crying and hugging, but generally standing around looking pouty.


In addition to the lack of sex, Bollywood films have a very strong moral element. The evil characters, be they drug dealers, thieves, drinkers or people who are mean to their parents, usually get what's coming to them in the end. The hero of the film, inevitably handsome, virtuous, modest and hard-working, gets the girl and becomes materially and spiritually fulfilled because he didn't succumb to wicked temptations. That's not to say that the men are wimps-- an important trait is for the man to be brave and strong in the name of righteousness, perhaps beating up his foe, or walking into a hail of bullets to save his love. Leading women as well are beautiful paragons of virtue; shy, modest and usually playing hard to get. In addition, traditional family values must be incredibly important to Indian people because strong families are usually central to the plot, even in the more comic of films.

Going to a Bollywood Film

Aa ab laut chalen

Seeing an Indian film isn't an easy thing for most Americans to do. Indian-American people have a somewhat isolated subculture, perhaps not as extreme as Chinese people, but it is one that most Americans don't come into contact with. Fortunately for us, there is a public TV station in Philadelphia which broadcasts a whole day of international programming every Sunday. It's all incredibly fun to watch, from the Jamaican music videos to the bizarre Korean game show, but far and away the most fun comes from two shows, The Asian Variety Show and Namaste America, which focus almost exclusively on Bollywood, interviewing actors, directors and singers in addition to showing clips from current and old films. These shows are amazing.

During one of these shows a few months ago, there was a commercial for a showing of an Indian film in a multiplex theatre near our house, so we decided to see it. When we got to the theater, we were planning on looking for the name in the box office because we couldn't remember what it was called (the title was in Hindi). The box office didn't have the movie listed so we sheepishly approached the woman behind the glass.

"Uh, is there an Indian movie playing here?"

"You buy your tickets in there," she replied, pointing to a small table just inside the lobby of the theatre. "Do you know the name of it?" she asked.

"No." Actually, we had a kind of vague notion that the first word in the name was "Aa" or something like that.

We went inside where there was a small folding table with a poster for the movie propped up next to it. A small group of Indian people were buying tickets, and we walked up when they were finished. The ticket seller looked at us oddly as we bought the tickets, and when he noticed that Mary was carrying a notebook (because she had been doing school work in the car) he asked her if she had to see the movie for a class.

"No," she said.

"Do you understand Hindi? There are no subtitles," the man said.

"That's OK, we just like the music," I said.

They looked at us like we were insane, but they seemed to admire us for wanting to see the film. "You will be able to relate to this one because a lot of it was filmed in the United States," he added, trying to encourage us.

We stood around in the lobby with the other people, not quite knowing where to go. Finally a woman with a rubber stamp came to rip the tickets we had just bought and to stamp our hands with a butterfly. It was all very surreal as we were the only non-Indian people in the crowd, and being rather tall we kind of stood out.

After the stamping, we stood around in the lobby with the group, waiting for some indication of which theater to go into. None of the electronic signs which showed the names of the films playing had the name of the Indian film, so we just stood there awkwardly. Some of the people politely engaged us in conversation, obviously quite curious about why we would want to see a film in Hindi, so we had to keep telling people that we really liked the music. They seemed to understand this, and eventually we were led to a door which had a sign above it reading She's All That. We stood around while a group of bewildered teenagers streamed out of the theater to find a crowd of sixty Indian people and two confused non-Indian people waiting outside. The marquee above the door really should have said:

Aa Ab Laut Chalen

The theater was packed with everyone from very small children to the elderly when the film finally started. The story is rather complicated, but essentially it's about an unemployed young man named Rohan living in India who is lured to New York by his sleazy friend who has just returned to India with riches from working in the US. Upon arrival in New York, Rohan is disgusted to discover that his friend is a pimp who runs a sleazy motel. If one was still undecided about the moral fibre of the pimp, they show him forcing his elderly parents to work as a maid and busboy at the motel, and he is very mean to them. Rohan stays in New York, works a series of odd jobs, and meets a woman named Pooja. This is about the first hour of the film. At first, we weren't sure it was really a musical, because, well, there hadn't been any music. Suddenly, during a scene where the characters are sitting in a park facing Manhattan, Rohan jumps up on a table and starts singing. Dozens of brightly dressed drummers appear out of nowhere and the whole thing goes apeshit for about fifteen minutes. Eventually the plot develops into a competition for Rohan's love between Pooja and an evil temptress, in addition to several family-unity-oriented subplots involving relatives of the main characters.

The cinematography is breathtaking, with a great deal of attention paid to the feeling of the scenes. Everything is perfect in the stunning musical numbers, where the characters belt out Hindi songs amid stunned passers-by in various locations around New York City, including the memorable Times Square scene. Even without understanding any of the words (except for the American characters, who weren't portrayed in a very favorable light) we understood most of the plot and fully enjoyed the movie. We didn't even realize that it was three hours long until we left the theater, still in awe.

Indian Films on Video

Since Mary and I enjoyed the movie so much, I decided to buy her a few Indian movies on video as a gift for Valentine's Day. I went to a few mega-video stores, but nobody had Indian musicals. Then, one Sunday during Namaste America, I saw an ad for a grocery store which sold "CDs, Sarees and Videos," so I went to check it out. I found the store and went inside. There were videos and CDs everywhere. I approached the clerk and said, "I'd like to buy some Indian movies."

"Would you like anything in particular?" he said, looking at the racks of hundreds of tapes.

"Well, what do you suggest? I think we'd like one with a lot of music in it."

He pulled out a tape without a case, obviously a bootleg, which said Dil Se.. on the side.

"How much are they?" I asked, preparing to pay $30.

"They are $2."

"To rent?" I asked, thinking this could be the only explanation for this price.

"To buy!" he replied.

"Great! I'll take a few more also. Whatever you suggest. They're for my wife. She loves Indian movies," I said, thinking this would keep them from asking why I wanted to buy them. I also picked up some excellent vindaloo paste.

Needless to say the quality isn't the greatest, but you still get the flavor of the movies even on the small screen. Most of them seem to be "letterboxed" with black bands at the top and bottom of the screen, further reducing the viewing area, but the cinematography is still stunning.

Dil Se..

This was the first of them that we watched (part of the frustration we feel is not being able to translate the title). The plot centers around a reporter for Indian radio who goes to the northern part of India to interview some terrorists. In a train station on the way, he meets a mysterious woman who leaves suddenly on the next train that pulls in. He watches the train roll away, and suddenly it turns into a huge musical number. This one is truly astonishing-- the entire thing takes place on top of a moving train rolling through soaring mountains and valleys. I can only guess how many of the dancers were injured when they took a wrong step and fell from the car.

The movie is great, with the mysterious woman seeming to appear wherever they reporter goes to research a terrorist incident. He becomes obsessed with her, but she won't have anything to do with him (because obviously she's really a terrorist). Although I can't comment on the dialogue, I can say that the film is a marvel of cinematography, with locations that have to be seen to be believed. The ending is astounding as well.

Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya

This one was a kind of lighthearted romantic film with all the great ingredients, but light on the melodrama. We were utterly confounded by the plot, but after reading a review in the Planet Bollywood website, I can safely say that all of our assumptions about the relationships of the characters were completely wrong. Essentially, it's about a woman named Muskaan who has an overprotective brother (we thought it was her husband). She goes to a university, and a kind of silly, bumbling guy named Suraj falls for her. Of course, the brother will have none of it and does everything he can to prevent them from being together, from dragging Suraj around behind a horse to beating the crap out of him.

It's a pretty funny film, and some of the musical scenes are fantastic, despite the fact that they are sparsely scattered around the film. One really great number has Suraj dancing around with his backpack, pretending it's Muskaan, hugging and kissing it to the amusement of passers-by. This film is worth watching just to see Suraj try to cook dinner for Muskaan's family by himself.

Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha

According to the review of this movie on the Planet Bollywood website, this movie is an Indian remake of the American film French Kiss which starred Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan. Since I've never seen French Kiss, I had to take their word for it. Essentially it's about a woman named Sanjana whose boyfriend runs off with another woman. She goes after him and meets Shekhar on the plane. Shekhar is a thief who has stolen a valuable piece of jewelry, which he hides in Sanjana's bag to avoid it being found by a policeman who shows up at the airport to question him. Eventually they show up at a beach resort to make the former boyfriend jealous. As usual, there are some great songs during the plot development, including a lavish one where Shekhar sneaks off to rifle through Sanjana's bag looking for the necklace. There's also a great one at the beach resort with Sanjana teasing her ex-boyfriend and his new woman in hilariously wicked ways.

The End

Indian films certainly aren't for everyone, but we think that they're loads of fun. There's lots to love in the campy world of Bollywood: incredible cinematography, wacky slapstick humor, tear-jerking melodrama, romance, great music and of course, outrageous musical numbers that leave you wanting more.

© 1999, Ken B. Miller & Contributors as Listed. | Reproduced from Shouting at the Postman #35, June, 1999 | 10607

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